Sticks in the Smoke 31: Victoria Embankment Gardens

victoria-embankment-gardens-1(Friday 16 September 2016)

A day of blustery showers: an autumn taste. I enter the gardens at the narrowest end, away from the sound of traffic splishing under Waterloo Bridge, and follow hurrying figures along the curving puddled path. Mature planes, catalpa and metasequoia, yews 031aand laurels, luxuriant plants, exotic shrubs and banana palms line the way and provide backdrops for an array of statues and memorials, including one to Sir Arthur Sullivan by Sir William Goscombe John, put up in 1903, with semi- naked muse draping herself seductively in grief (he ignores her, but looks across to the Savoy Hotel, which was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas). Further along, I try out the brass button of the drinking fountain, memorial to Henry Fawcett (political reformer and campaigner for women’s suffrage), work of sculptor Mary Grant in 1886. It still works after all these years and spurts a forceful jet of water from its dolphin spout which sprays over me and a shocked tourist couple, who jump back, already damp from the rain! Then there’s the grand white Portland stone monument to Lord Cheylesmore (Army major- general and chairman of London County Council who, in 1925, was the first member of the aristocracy to be killed in a car accident), designed by Edwin Lutyens, behind a circular ornamental pond. It’s back to back with the Belgian War Memorial, which faces out to the Embankment, opposite Cleopatra’s Needle.
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031bThis garden was one of several created after the completion of the Victoria Embankment in 1870, along the northern banks of this mile long, dog leg bend of the Thames, between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. The Embankment was built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, as described in my blog post about Whitehall Gardens (only a stones throw south of here), back in May. A hugely ambitious project to tame the Thames and assert London’s authority over nature (an embankment and road had originally been proposed 2 centuries earlier by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666). This string of gardens forms the decorative icing on this massive practical and utilitarian cake. Take a slice through and you have the Circle and District line, running just below (not tunnelled, but cut down from the surface and then covered over). At a ventilation opening on the east edge of the gardens, you can feel and hear the rumble and screech of trains below, pulling in to Embankment station. And under the road, there’s the Low Level Sewer, a major conduit which takes much of central London’s effluent out to be treated to the east of the City.
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A few spattering drops then the heavens open again and I make a dash for the cafe. A mug of tea bought, then I set up in the dry under the cafe canopy, looking across through a varied pattern of partially autumnal foliage, along with limes, tree fern and fig tree, towards the pink granite of Cleopatra’s Needle, stabbing up towards a slaty sky. Glimpses of the river, slipping silvery under Waterloo bridge. Snatches of chatter and drifts of tobacco smoke from occupants of other tables. A bedraggled looking blackbird scrabbles among the soggy fag ends beneath a dripping viburnum.
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031dThe rain eases and I wander between lawns and brightly planted beds of rudbeckia and banana palms. The garden layout was designed by landscape designer, Alexander McKenzie in 1870 and is little changed. Curving rows of empty blue deckchairs are a patient audience to a closed up bandstand. I sit for a while. A couple are taking selfies, posing with a plastic white knight from the giant chess game. I watch some surveyors in hi-vis jackets battling with a mis-behaving theodolite. And a little girl in a yellow raincoat is chasing her father around the lawn. She’s parked her very shiny matching yellow ‘ride-on’ Mini Cooper expertly by the path edge.
I make my way out and wander through Embankment station and up the steps to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. I follow the raised walk away from the river, towards Charing Cross and find a covered balcony that overhangs Villiers Street. From here my sketchbook is protected from raindrops and I have a pigeon’s eye view down towards the garden entrances: between scalloped walls and railings, with plane trees forming a welcoming party. I can watch the crowds, scurrying to and from Embankment station; transitory snippets of hundreds of lives. A rumble of thunder rolls and echoes down the street. And then a sudden raucous screech of female laughter from the trattoria opposite. When I glance round I notice a blue plaque which announces that Rudyard Kipling lived there from 1889 -91, where he wrote his novel The Light That Failed, which references this area.
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That building also houses Gordons Wine Bar, established in 1890: easily the oldest wine bar in London with, what looks like, its original drab brown Victorian frontage. Before the Embankment was built, it had been a warehouse on the river’s edge, where sacks of seed 031cand grain would have been winched directly from river barges. It sits on the corner with Watergate Walk, where you can follow the path along to the York House Water Gate. This impressive arched gateway was built in 1626, designed by Sir Balthazar Gerbier as the river access for York House, the residence of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Originally lapped by the grey Thames waters, it’s now landlocked, looking out onto the potted palms, flowerbeds and lawns of Victoria Embankment Gardens.
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Drawing done, I close my sketchbook. My eye is caught by a gleam of evening sun, which streaks into the Pink Pansy flower stall at the bottom of the street, between the gardens and the station entrance, shimmering down into the wet pavement.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Victoria Embankment Gardens, Villiers St, London WC2N 6PB
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 30: The Regents Park (South side)

regents-park-1(Thursday 8 September 2016)

This is another park that’s so huge (182 acres) that I can’t possibly sum it all up in one visit (I’ll return at some point over the next few months to explore the wider and more open northern meadows, pitches, winter gardens and canalside walks, not forgetting a glimpse through to the zoo).030e

I’ve just this week finished reading the amazing John Fowles book ‘The Magus’ in which, coincidentally, the final chapter is set in Regents Park. His description is so evocative:

“The park was full of green distances. of countless scattered groups of people, lovers, families, soilitaries with dogs, the colours softened by the imperceptible mist of autumn, as simple and pleasing in its way as a Boudin beachscape”

Today I’m sticking to the southern section, east of the boating lake. Even this part is like a progression of different gardens, jigsaw- puzzled together, each with its own character. There is a ring road called the Outer Circle, which circumnavigates the whole park for over 2.5 miles, and the Inner Circle which is about half a mile in circumference. These, apart from the linking roads, are the only routes for motor traffic.

The tree lined paths and straight hedged formality of the Avenue Gardens remind me of a Parisian Park. Ornamental fountains or decorative urns at every intersection and colourful box- hedged beds. At a distance the strolling figures could be promenading Victorians. But Marylebone Green, just next door, by contrast, is a proper village green, rough- grassed, tree- shaded, mole- hilled. You just want to run across here tugging an old fashioned kite!

There is a pull which draws you away from the noise of hectic Marylebone Road, towards something sweeter, like the pull of nectar for a bee. So I cross York Bridge and through the gently meandering and wooded waterside walk. And the banks are crowded with every 030dkind of waterbird! A group of hunched herons are standing around in their grey tailcoats like a bunch of bored wedding ushers; they couldn’t care less about me being so close (on  river walks at home, you can’t even tiptoe closer than 25 metres to a heron without it taking off with an annoyed, pterodactyl cry).

Here I can almost imagine myself traipsing a winding track in the vast Forest of Middlesex that, a millennium ago, thickly blanketed the land from here northward, up over Primrose Hill, the whole of north London and further. Before the 16th century it was a mix of woodland and rough pasture belonging to Barking Abbey.  It was appropriated by Henry VIII in 1538, during the Dissolution, adding the land to his growing collection of Royal hunting grounds.

The parkland was seized by Cromwell during the Civil War and much of the remaining forest’s timber was cleared and sold to pay off war debts. After the Restoration in 1660, the land was returned to the crown and was leased out to tenant farmers, who supplied the city markets with milk, butter and cheese.

On the bank, just before the boating lake there’s a planting of young birch, gleaming against the dark strap of Clarence Bridge. I set up my easel where I get the view through to a ribbon glimpse of water. It’s a very warm and sunny day, but pretty breezy, so I edge back into the shade of a mulberry tree. A branch keeps getting blown into my neck so I bend it away and clip it temporarily to another branch with my spare bulldog clip. Two Egyptian geese flap down and immediately stage a squabble then lose interest in fighting and start earnestly pecking at the grass, taking surreptitious glances at me with their unblinking orange eyes.

030bThe piping, squawking and cawing of waterfowl is punctuated by the incessant squeal and clash of the gate into Regents University grounds just behind me. A constant flow of park visitors (just as Fowles describes above) across the bridge, break into shifting colour diamonds through the gaps in its iron latticework.

In 1811, the Prince Regent saw this area as a perfect location for a new summer palace and commissioned John Nash to make it happen. Nash’s original idea was for a circular park, with a lake, a canal, the palace and 56 private villas set in ornamental gardens. The whole would be surrounded with streets of grand Regency terraces. But it didn’t all go to plan: the fickle Prince’s interest was diverted by other projects, such as Buckingham Palace and the Brighton Pavilion so, although the park was established (and renamed as The Regents Park), there was no palace and only a few of the planned villas were built. However, Nash did manage to build the white stucco terraces and sweeping Regent Street to link the Park with other Regency schemes such as Carlton House Terrace and Buckingham Palace.

030aSome of the park was opened to the general public from 1835. Other portions were leased out to local societies and groups, ranging from The Royal Botanic Society to the Zoological Society (which still runs the Regents Park Zoo) and various sporting, scientific and educational bodies. Each of these portions were developed differently which has led to today’s diverse patchwork of gardens, recreation grounds and park buildings.

I pack my things and step back onto the path. The breeze has dropped and the heat is building. I walk alongside the lake; the mass of waterfowl reluctantly letting me through. A couple in a blue pedalo are having steering problems and seem to be going in circles, backwards. I cross the lawns, between deckchairs, push under the swaying curtains of a high weeping willow, with flickering reflections and glimpses across the blue banded water. And out, to pause by the bandstand (there’s a memorial stone here to the seven bandsmen of the Royal Green Jackets who were killed by an IRA bomb in 1982 while performing a lunchtime concert).

I feel that ‘nectar’ pull again and am drawn up the slope, across the Inner Circle road and into the perfect round of Queen Mary’s Garden (named after the wife of King George V). This 17 acres was originally used by the Royal Botanic Society for nurseries and a huge conservatory, but they gave it up in 1931. It was relandscaped and planted and opened to the public to experience its exotic leafy borders and Mediterranean gardens and colourful beds and walks. And secret corners. A pond with little rills. And lawns and trees. The conservatory 030cwas demolished and later, on its site: the Triton fountain built, jetting high (with gleaming and dripping mer figures, as a memorial to artist Sigismund Goetze), .

I buy a cup of tea from the cafe and walk on and, as I leave behind the aroma of pizza and chips, there’s a syrupy, heady scent wafting to greet me. I’m lured to the rows of rectangular rose beds next to the stately Jubilee Gates (donated by Goetze for George V‘s Silver Jubilee in 1935). I’ve never been the greatest fan of roses, but these beds are truly magnificent! (There are around 12,000 rose plants of many varieties in these gardens). Ablaze with vibrant colour, petals pierced by bright shards of sunlight, alive with bees and gusts of breeze. I have to draw! Drawn closer by the intoxicating cocktail of scent and colour and movement. And the sun beating down. Bursts of laughter and applause bounces across the lawns from the Open Air Theatre on the opposite side of the garden (performing ‘Pride and Prejudice’ today).

As I draw, a magpie hops in amongst the rose bushes. It re-emerges with a crimson bud in its beak and pecks at it on the grass. Then hops back in to pick another!

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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

The Regents Park, Chester Rd, London NW1 4NR
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 29: Bessborough Gardens, Pimlico

bessborough-gardens(Thursday 1 September 2016)

From Pimlico Station, I dash across Lupus Street through the cool white columned entrance portico and iron gates into the dazzling sunlight and shady leafage of Bessborough Gardens.
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On two sides are tall and elegant Georgian style stucco terraces, whose front gates open straight onto the park. I step down and follow the asymmetric pattern of stone and brick paths around and across the summer scorched lawns. There are several generous plane 029aand sycamore trees, and wide fringes of mature shrubs are flickering thickets to screen out the relentless Grosvenor and Vauxhall Bridge Roads.
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A map of Pimlico sites it in a rounded swoop of the Thames, just south of Westminster, on what was once marshy grazing land, known as ‘The Five Fields’. In 1666 it was inherited by a scrivener’s baby daughter, Mary Davies as part of a legacy (which also included the land that Knightsbridge and Mayfair now stand on). At the age of 12, Mary married Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet. Her dowry was to become a large part of, what is today, the massive property corporation: Grosvenor Estates.
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It was some time before any real development happened in Pimlico, however. This was not a popular area, partly due to its marshiness (a branch of the River Tyburn, which was pretty well an open sewer in the early 1800s, flowed through here and flooded regularly); and partly because the infamous Millbank Penitentiary, only 150 metres away (where Tate Britain and Chelsea College of Art now stand), cast a grim shadow over the area from the early 19th century. For part of its history it held prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia.
It’s a warm day with a gentle breeze rattling leaves across the path. I walk to the south end and slowly circumnavigate the tall, three- tiered fountain a few times, letting its mist cool 029cmy forehead. It was installed in 1980 to celebrate the Queen Mother‘s 80th birthday and is set in an octagonal stone pool. It was designed by the landscape architect, Peter Shepheard, based on George Vulliamy‘s dolphin motif that you can see twining around the lamp stems on the Embankment walls. I scramble up into the raised shrubbery at the southern end to perhaps draw a higher view back across the park, but trip over the edge of some flattened sheets of cardboard and, hidden under bushes, there are plastic bags of belongings. I have the feeling I’m intruding into somebody’s makeshift bedroom, so I make a hasty exit.
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I find a view from a shady corner at the other end, looking back across the lawns towards the fountain. The glittery blue St George Wharf Tower, at over 180 metres, appears ready for launch in the background.
In the 1820s, developer Thomas Cubitt saw the potential of the district for high-class housing. He started buying parcels of land from the Grosvenor Estate. The boggy ground was drained and was made firm with thousands of bargeloads of soil and rubble excavated during the construction of St Katharine Docks downstream.  Cubitt created a grid of streets and squares of grand white stucco houses and smaller terraces. As part of this scheme, a wedge-shaped garden was laid out in 1843 to serve the surrounding properties, with Holy Trinity Church being built a little later on the south side (the church was fire bombed in the 2nd World War and subsequently demolished in 1953).
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Much of Pimlico was severely affected by the Big Flood of 1928, where a downstream deluge of winter melt water met an upstream storm surge, causing the Thames to gush over and through the Embankment to inundate a large part of the city. Cubitt’s Bessborough Gardens terraces were badly affected. They were also much damaged during the second World War and deteriorated further over the following decades. Eventually they 029bwere pulled down as part of a major road scheme. In the 1980s new buildings went up, about 50 metres to the west, in the original style, containing 140 luxury apartments with underground parking, and the present gardens were created.
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The gardens are full of chatter and laughter now from bunches of lunchers sitting on the dried out grass. A plane tree on the middle lawn is spreading its shade in a wide circle, over a group of workmen who are joking and throwing someone’s boots and mock insults at each other. A mother and 2 daughters come over to watch me draw. Then every few minutes the girls run across from their picnic to see how I’m getting on with the sketch.
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After lunchtime the gardens quieten down and the true Bessborough residents emerge:
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A woman with shorts and spotty sun top struggles across with bags and bottles and sets up camp with a bright orange sunlounger. She ineffectively dabs suncream on her shoulders and neck and knees before stretching out with magazine and headphones.
An elegant lady with grey hair in a bun shuffles past with stick and a highland terrier in tow.
029dA pigeon gang strut about and peck at picnic fragments. A tawny cat stalks around them into the undergrowth. It emerges 10 minutes later and strides proudly back with a shrew (I think) swinging from its mouth.
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The sound of a piano trickles from an open upstairs window. I look up to see a small child’s face gazing down into the garden.
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A man in a long dark and dishevelled coat comes up and asks if I can spare some change. I drop some coins in his hand and he pushes at them with a long fingernail and nods and thanks me. As he walks away I wonder if it was his ‘bedroom’ I stumbled across earlier. He works his way methodically around the park, stooping over every person. Some reach into their pockets. Some don’t. The orange sunlounger lady dismissively wafts him away and reaches for the suncream.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Bessborough Gardens, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Pimlico. SW1V 2JE
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 28: Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea

ranelagh-gardens-1(Thursday 25 August 2016)

Through the London Gate entrance and down, past the magnificent buildings and courtyards of the Royal Hospital. I see my first Chelsea Pensioner of the day: white bearded and wearing full scarlet coat even on this hot day!
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The Royal Chelsea Hospital was designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1692.  It had been instituted by Charles II to provide care for old and injured soldiers, “broken by age or war”, who had no family to look after them. Until that time, these men relied on church charities or even workhouses. The hospital was built in fields at the edge of the village of Chelsea so they could benefit from the countryside air, with a good view of the Thames. It very soon reached its full capacity of 476 residents. Today there are around 300 living here, including soldiers who served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and World War II..

028dI walk through the gate into Ranelagh Gardens, following meandering shaded paths which roam through and between the shrubberies, thickets and grassy undulations. I pass a group of mothers and offspring on the middle lawn. The children squealing as they run through the rainbow spray of a sprinkler. Beyond that, all is strangely empty here on such a sultry day.

Ranelagh Gardens was once a fashionable public pleasure garden, along similar lines to Vauxhall Gardens or Cremorne Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 16), but a bit more exclusive. The entrance charge, at half a crown, was more than double the others’ (Horace Walpole wrote soon after the gardens opened, “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.”). It was opened in 1742 in the grounds of Ranlelagh House, formerly the home of the first Earl of Ranelagh, treasurer of Chelsea Hospital .
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There were beautiful formal garden walks, through trees and around a long ornamental lake (fed by the River Westbourne, which used to flow into the Thames just south of here, but now flows under the plane tree- lined avenue on the east edge of these gardens, as part of the London sewer system) and a ‘floating’ Chinese pavilion. The entire gardens were illuminated at Canaletto_Ranelegh_1754night by strings of fairy lanterns and sparkling mirror fountains. But dominating everything else was the rococo Rotunda. It was 185 feet in diameter, built of wood, and lavishly decorated, it had high external and internal viewing galleries and provided an enormous circular arena (the Millenium Dome of its day). This was a major concert venue, with an organ and staging for orchestras (in 1765 the Rotunda was bursting at the seams for a performance by the 9 year old Mozart). The central core support of the building housed massive fireplaces and chimneys, which made this an all-year-round venue; the other pleasure gardens were closed in the winter.
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Canaletto visited the gardens on a number of occasions during his London visits between 1746-56 and painted pictures of the gardens and the interior of the Rotunda (see above) for different patrons.
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These 14 acres provided the perfect setting for Masquerade balls, hugely popular in the 18th Century (think of the last fancy dress party you attended and picture something 10 times more grand, imaginative and intriguing!). Wondrous pageants of pretence and make- believe. Masquerade was a real leveller at a time of great class division: you could dress up as a prince and rub shoulders with a real prince disguised as a shepherdess; come as a 028cbutcher and hobnob with a baker dressed as a candlestick maker; or you could be a duchess for the day and dance with the devil, a dodo or a dandy! At a time of the strictest social mores, you could let your hair down (or put it up), and cast aside inhibitions and decorum for an evening. These gardens were especially popular as, inside the heated Rotunda, the Masquerade season could extend well into winter..
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In 1803, debts and spiralling costs forced the consortium who owned Ranelagh to cut their losses and close the pleasure gardens after that summer’s season. The Rotunda was demolished two years later. Around 1860, Ranelagh Gardens were redesigned by John Gibson as a public park, much as it appears today.
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I continue through, seeing no-one except a solitary gardener watering a newly sown area of lawn. The air is so still and warm and shimmery. I have the oddest sense that, any moment, I’ll round a bend and catch the slightest glimpse of a harlequin disappearing behind a tree, or the ghosts of masked revellers dancing in a clearing. I walk up to the far southeast corner, amongst the trees and bushes, just behind the brickwork of the The Carabiniers memorial at the busy Chelsea Bridge crossroads. It’s overgrown and wilder here, and unkempt. Just how I like it! So I unpack my drawing things where I can get a view back through to the empty lawn.
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But here is the strangest contraposition: under this overgrown corner copse, just a few feet 028baway, through the railings, the world is going on in its hootiest, roaringest, roadragest, ghetto- blasterest and diesel fumest! Somehow, though, I can filter all that out, and hear the clear birdsong, the zuzz of passing wasps, and smell the earthy scent of leaf litter, as I look down onto a sunlit scene of tranquility, totally devoid of people. Standing with pinching shoes removed, in my own private estate! .
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A little green bud plops down onto my sketchbook page. Then suddenly, just as I’m about to brush it away, it becomes a little cricket and springs onto the rim of my paint water pot, where it stays for ages and doesn’t move even when I rinse my brush.
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End of drawing, shoes back on and I take a different route back towards the top part of the garden. Catching views through the western railings to the 13 acre South Grounds; closed off at the moment, to allow the field to re-establish itself. It’s used for a number of large scale events each year, including the Chelsea Flower Show in May.
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028aI find a spot amongst some redcurrant bushes to set up, opposite the gardeners’ depot, to make another drawing across towards the elegant brickwork and roofs of the Royal Hospital. Behind the hedge is the site of the original Ranelagh House. There are greenhouses and a patchwork of allotments which are used by the residents. It’s very warm now, no cooling breeze to speak of. I’m glad of the shade of a horse chestnut but I’m having to bat the wasps away as I work! There’s a constant percussion of hammering from the new Chelsea Barracks housing development over the road.
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A few more garden visitors now, some on shaded benches, some sunbathing. Children chase across the lawns. A convoy of 3 Chelsea pensioners on mobility scooters trundle past. And a pair of the old soldiers march slowly by, they pause to peer over at me. One lifts his stick as though he’s on parade and waves a shaky greeting to me. And I find myself waving a greeting back to him. With my paintbrush.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Ranelagh Gardens, Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3 4SR
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 27: St Mary Aldermanbury; St Mary Staining; St Olave Silver Street

St-Mary-Aldermanbury(Thursday 18 August 2016)

This is part of the City  where ancient and very modern just about rub along ok, sometimes almost literally! I’m so close to gardens I’ve visited before: Postman’s Park, St Pauls, St Alphage and Finsbury Circus are each less than 5 minutes away. The map here is littered with these little green fragments, almost as though the occupants of this area of high rise, high finance and high flyers, more than most, need regular grounding!

It’s warm and bright and breezy. Perfect conditions for drawing. So today I’m feeling ambitious and aim to tackle three gardens, all on the footprints of ruined churches. They’re so close that you could comfortably hold your breath while walking from one to the other. I don’t do that though.

But exactly 350 years ago you’d probably want to! If you were winding your way through the waste ridden and filthy narrow streets of this part of London in the heatwave of August 1666, the air would be ripe and malodorous and full of flies. But in just over a fireengravingfortnight, and less than a mile away, a small bakery fire was to get out of control, fanned into the thundering inferno of the Great Fire, and funnelled ever closer towards these alleys, fuelled by the tinder dry timber and thatch houses. You and your family would be forced to take flight, clutching the few possessions you could manage, towards what you hoped would be the sanctuary of one of the three nearby stone churches of St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary Staining or St Olave Silver Street. But very soon you’d have to flee again, as these havens were also threatened. A desperate dash towards the staunch firebreak of London Wall, joining the panicking throng trying to squeeze through Cripplegate. Maybe abandoning precious belongings so you could protect your children from the worst of the choking smoke and showers of burning embers. And looking just to the south: a great plume of leaping flame and sparks from the tower and roofs of St Paul’s Cathedral. What hope then for these small parish churches.

St Mary Aldermanbury

I stand in the shade of a robinia tree, a flame of golden green, in a corner of this comfortable retreat of just under 2 acres. Hedges, shrubs, herbaceous planted beds, a parched, well- used lawn and enclosed seating areas on different levels. The ancient stone pillar footings, now used as picnic tables, seating or backrests for relaxing and lunching 027boffice workers: an ever- changing, munching congregation. The cooling breeze brings spiced and pungent aromas of at least 30 diverse lunches to my nostrils. And the mix of scrunches, crackles and rustles of food wrappers to my ears.

This ground is where a Roman amphitheatre once stood, the largest in the land (you can still see remains of it in the nearby Guildhall Art Gallery basement). Over the centuries, this became established as a major gathering place; probably why the Guildhall (the administrative centre of the City of London for over 800 years) was originally sited here in Saxon times. The church of St Mary Aldermanbury was built next to the Guildhall in 1437. After its destruction in the Great Fire, it was rebuilt in Portland stone by Christopher Wren, but fire-gutted once again during the Blitz on the night of 29/30 December 1940. It was not rebuilt (although its stones were transported across the Atlantic in 1966 by the residents of Fulton, Missouri to build a replica of the church).
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A plaque on the garden wall reads ‘Aldermanbury Conduit stood in this street providing free water 1471 – 18th century’. This was a branch of The Great Conduit: a system of lead pipes
027awhich channelled fresh water from a spring near Tyburn village. Local streams and rivers were becoming increasingly contaminated as the City’s population grew. Much of this pipework melted during the Great Fire and proved too costly to replace.
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The breeze ruffles the newspapers of bench occupants in the upper terrace area, surrounding a pink granite monument to Henry Condell and John Heminges, who lived in this parish. They were the first publishers of Shakespeare‘s plays, and actors / partners in the Globe Theatre (It’s known that Shakespeare wasn’t bothered much about publishing his writing. One of the plaques reads: “What they did was priceless, for the whole of his manuscripts, with almost all of those of the dramas of the period have perished”). The monument is topped with a bust of Shakespeare, sunlight glinting from shiny bald head.

St-Mary-StainingSt. Mary Staining

A minute’s walk down Love Lane and through the square tunnel of St Alban’s Court under the 100 Wood Lane office building and out into this intimate space enclosed 027cby the towering semicircle of steel and bluegreen glass around two sides, and the brick solidity of the 1950s Pewterer’s Hall along the west edge opposite. I can’t believe this overshadowed little garden (less than tenth of an acre!) ever receives sunlight! One great plane tree is all it can support, along with evergreen shrubs, a fatsia, laurels. And a bed of hydrangeas and amaryllis. I find a spot in the flowerbed by the entrance steps to set my easel so I can get the best possible view across the garden.
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In 1189 there is a reference to the church here as ‘Ecclesia de Staningehage’. This roughly translates as ‘church under the control of Staines‘; it is thought that this church was attached to an area here which was owned and administered from Staines, possibly as temporary compound and storage for crops and livestock being 027dmoved to market. In 1278 a murder took place here when Richard de Codeford, accused of robbery, took refuge in the church and speared his pursuers with a lance through a hole in the window.
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After the Great Fire in 1666, the church was never rebuilt, but the space kept as a churchyard.
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This isn’t nearly as busy the other St Mary. A few people come and go. Workmen eating and smoking, chatting and laughing. One is lounging on the grass and talking on his phone. The breeze is picking up and I have to hold my sketchbook down. I can hear the clattering of a drink can being blown around in circles, echoing from wall to wall. Three official looking men in suits carry huge bobbing bags of metallic red balloons up Staining Lane and into the office building opposite.

St-Olave-Silver-StreetSt. Olave, Silver Street

Only another minute or so up to the top of Noble Street (Silver street no longer exists, wiped 027eout in the massive redevelopment of this area after the 2nd World War), and the garden of St Olave, on the edge of the frantic thoroughfare of London Wall. The original church was dedicated to St Olaf, a Norwegian Christian ally of the English king Ethelred II.
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I get myself a cup of tea from EAT, just behind the garden, and take scalding sips while drawing from the upper lawn, towards the huge red and blue aircon funnels of the 88 Wood Street building, looking like a supertanker has just docked alongside.
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A large roughly octagonal stone, with a hollow of water in its top, stands in the lower lawn, marking the site of the old church. It looks like a wide font, but is more likely to be the base of a pillar.
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027fExcited knots of international students are blazing a historical trail through the city of London and descend on the garden every few minutes. They have to locate the stone commemorative tablet engraved with skull and crossbones. Most find it eventually, but one group walks straight past and then wanders around looking confused. I’m standing close to the top of the steps where the stone is embedded (I could have shown them where, but don’t, and then feel guilty!). Below the skull and crossbones, the tablet reads: “This was the Parish Church of St. Olave Silver Street, Destroyed by the Dreadfull Fire in the Year 1666”
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On a bench behind me, a cycle courier has his bike upside down, trying to fix the chain. For a while there’s the spasmodic buzzing of his spinning bike wheel, amplified by the wooden bench slats.
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From the outside this is an unassuming little garden (about sixth of an acre), mostly used as a shortcut and somewhere for a quick bite or a smoke in passing. But step within and stay awhile and, enclosed by its thriving greenery and spreading foliage, a great sense of serenity and stillness descends.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

St Mary Aldermanbury, Love Lane, London. EC2V 7HP
St Mary Staining, Oat Lane, London. EC2V 7EE
St Olave Silver Street, Noble St, London. EC2V 7EE
Google earth view here

Illustration: Woodcut from ‘Shlohavot, or, The burning of London in the year 1666’ Museum of London

Sticks in the Smoke 26: Holland Park, Kensington

holland-park-1(Thursday 2 August 2016)

The forecast was for a 20% chance of light rain today, but I’m splashing along Kensington High Street towards the Holland Walk entrance to the park through a heavy downpour and hoping the 80% begins to happen soon.

Holland Park spreads across land that was once part of the grounds of Cope Castle, built in 1605 for Sir Walter Cope, the Chamberlain of the Exchequer. His daughter, Isabel, inherited the property. She married Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, a Royalist officer, who was beheaded for treason in the Tower of London in 1649 and is said to haunt the house with his head under his arm. During the Civil War, the castle was taken over and occupied by the Roundheads and was often used by Cromwell. After the war it was returned to the family, who renamed it Holland House. This was still a predominantly rural area, but during the 1800s, as demand for housing grew, much of the 500 acre estate was sold off for building, leaving these 54 acres.
026aThe rain continues on and off. This is such a full and multifaceted park: enclosed gardens, hidden spaces, ornamental flower gardens, sculptures, secret corners, rose beds etc that it takes me an hour or so of walking, dodging showers, and hunting for a view that encapsulates it. In the end I’m forced under cover in the Orangery arcade, looking out across the Iris Garden (sadly too late in the year for the flowers!) and towards the William Pye ‘Sibirica’ fountain sculpture, rising like a verdigris flower trumpet from the circular pond. Up to the left is the Belvedere restaurant, topped with bell tower and resident peacocks strutting haughtily and announcing their presence with strident shrieks.

This, the library and the east wing of the house is all that survived a massive ten- hour Blitz bombardment of 22 incendiary bombs during the night of 27 September 1940. The ruins and the grounds were purchased by London County Council in 1952 from the last private owner, the 6th Earl of Ilchester and opened to the public. The formal gardens, walls and walks were restored. The southern section was laid out as sports fields and the northern half left as mostly natural wild woodland.

On the back wall of the colonnade is a long mural by Mao Wen Biao, depicting scenes of Edwardian social grandeur: elegant ladies and blazered gentlemen against backdrops of rose bushes and dappled sunlight. A far cry from today! I unpack my sketchbook and light raindrops pitter on its cover. I step further back under the arch.

As I draw, I start to notice figures dodging through the drizzle, some hooded, some hunched, all determinedly hunting with phones clutched in front. Singly, in pairs or groups, they make their way down the steps, around the pond, along the colonnade: Pokémon Go hunters! Hesitant footsteps behind me as I draw, and “it’s gotta be down here somewhere!” and a yell of “Hey! There’s an Eevie down there!”.  I find out, a bit alarmingly, that I’m standing halfway between a Bulbasaur and an Eevie.

026cThe sun peeks out for a moment and brings a busily chittering coach party of about 20 ladies in wide red hats with purple ribbons and red jackets into the garden. They linger and look lost and some point in different directions. One asks me if I know where Alice is. And I say that I really have no idea. Then one shouts “This way girls!” and they swish down the passage and out. An acrid cloud of mingled perfume hangs in the air behind them and slowly descends on me and two young lads who are trying to locate the Bulbasaur.

Music stutters and wafts across. Sounds of tuning up, a trumpet, fragments of song. Later, I discover that it’s for this afternoon’s opera: Alice in Wonderland ( composed by Will Todd). Since 1986, opera has been staged every summer under canopied cover on the lawns. After scores of critically acclaimed performances over the years, Opera Holland Park has become a prestigious mainstay of the London cultural calendar.

On the further lawn, I can just see some teenagers are manically clonking each other with the giant plastic garden chess pieces.026b

Flagstones steam in the muggy sunshine. I pack my things and meander through the magnificent Dutch garden, box- hedged and elegantly colourful. Then skirt around the edge of the Japanese themed Kyoto garden (I’m planning to come back to draw here another time). Down a path and here’s a pond with seated statue up on a plinth, of the Victorian 3rd Lord Holland, sculpted by George Frederick Watts. Remember him? Creator of the extraordinary Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice at Postman’s Park, in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 25.

On into the wilder, wooded area. There’s a damp leaf littery scent. A maze of paths and tracks. Sounds of wildlife rustling, calling and chirping in the dark and dripping woods. Three teenage boys lurch past on Boris bikes, trying to keep an eye on their phones as they go.

holland-park-2

I find a clearing near the Abbotsbury Road entrance and set up my easel for a second sketch. Watery light makes a bright pool on the grass, which looks stringy and parched after last month’s lack of rain. Five pathways converge and emanate from this clearing. As I draw, ever more Pokémon Go seekers walk past, in twos and threes and larger groups. They seem to be coalescing with the gravity of a common purpose. A large group of, 026dperhaps, 15 disappear up one path, only to reappear five minutes later from another, having collected 7 or 8 more members. Every one an Alice, chasing after their own versions of the White Rabbit.

A squirrel scuttles through the oak tree canopy above. Birdsong echoes. Much happens here to encourage, preserve and protect nature. The Ecology Centre promotes awareness and understanding of biodiversity, working particularly with schools. Pigs and cows have been brought in over the past few years, as part of a conservation-grazing project by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to restore woodland meadow areas, which had become nettle and bramble choked. And the Friends of Holland Park is a voluntary group to promote the conservation of the natural plant, animal and bird life of the Park and, in particular, its retention as a natural woodland habitat for wildlife.

Spits of rain begin once more and I pack my things.  The 3 boys on bikes wobble past again. The last one struggling and out of breath and yells: “I’m knackered and wet and still not caught nothing. Whose dumb idea was this?

 



(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Holland Park, Kensington, London. W8 6LU
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 25: Postman’s Park, St Martin le Grand

postman's-park(Thursday 28 July 2016)

The layout of Postman’s Park looks like it was based on 3 different sized envelopes dropped randomly together on the doormat. And, although the ‘envelopes’ do unify together into this calm, welcoming and sheltered space, each still retains its own unique character. They were originally the churchyard of St Botolph-without-Aldersgate (St Botolph was the Anglo­Saxon patron saint of travellers, consequently churches dedicated to him were often close to city gates.  The church has been here since the 12th century, although the present brick building, with pillared and porticoed frontage, dates back to the early 1800s), alongwith the adjacent burial grounds of nearby St Leonard’s Foster Lane (destroyed in the Great Fire of London) and Christchurch, Newgate Street (which was mostly burnt to the ground in the Blitz).

25bSturdy decorative railings stand at the St Martin le Grand entrance, with an 1870s granite drinking fountain (still working!). The gate arch has its original Victorian gas lamp girdle. Up these steps and into a cool and shady yard, trees and luxuriant evergreen shrubs forming a leafy guard of honour. Then a round pond with dripping mossy fountain, tree canopies darkly reflected and sparkles of sky, with vivid ribbons of goldfish slowly curling in the depths.

Emerging into the wider, brighter section, I look across to the southern border: rounded lawns and a variety of trees, dominated by the rockface of a neoclassical office block. This was the site of the 8th century collegiate church and monastic precinct of St. Martin’s, originally founded by King Wihtred of Kent, rebuilt and expanded over the centuries.  As it 25awas so close to Aldersgate, the church was responsible for sounding the curfew bell in the evenings, which announced the closing of the City’s gates. It was dissolved in the Dissolution and demolished in 1548. The huge GPO headquarters and central sorting office were built on this spot in the early 1800’s. The gardens were so popular with the Post Office staff that it was renamed ‘Postman’s Park’.

A fine drizzle starts and I stroll around the shadier northern garden segment, which is bordered by Little Britain (an ancient, narrow street which winds from Smithfield, named after the Dukes of Brittany who built a house here in the 15th century) and set my easel on a piece of earth under a chestnut tree for cover.  I think it has blight as there’s an untimely rustling scatter of red gold leaves on the ground (Later I catch sight of a planning notice on the railings outside stating that the chestnut and a plane tree 25care due for felling soon, to be replaced by an ornamental acer). The park is busy with office workers, tourist groups and day- out families.

In front of me are colourfully planted quadrant beds, encircling an old stone sundial base. It has the feel of an abundant tropical garden, with four banana palms, large leaves spreading and unfurling and seeming to transmit a vivid yellowgreen light. And a host of verbena flowers on tall stems appear to hover in front of my eyes like exotic violet moths. And opposite is a long loggia, looking something like an Indonesian monsoon shelter.

But take a closer look and the contents of that shelter transform this space from pleasant garden into a place of truly powerful significance! This is George Frederic Watts‘s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice: glazed plaques commemorating the lives of 62 individuals who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten.  Watts, a well known Symbolist painter and sculptor, had long considered a national monument to the bravery of ordinary people, believing that these people were models of exemplary behaviour and character. He said: “the material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are“. In the 1860’s he had proposed a colossal bronze figure: “a great statue to Unknown Worth”, but was unable to get funding for this. As an alternative, he proposed this memorial. Even then it was a struggle for him to win support and find a location So it wasn’t until 1900, only 4 years before his death, that the project was finally realised. There is space here for 120 plaques. The first 24 were designed and produced by William De Morgan, each one glazed onto a block of six tiles.  After Watts died, his widow Mary Watts, oversaw the creation of a further 29 by Royal Doulton. The following give a flavour:

25i

25j

25f

25g

25d

25e

The project lapsed after 53 plaques had been installed until, in 2009, the Diocese of London finally consented to further additions and another was added, the first in 78 years, to Leigh Pitt, a print technician, who died in 2007, rescuing a 9 year­ old girl who had fallen into a canal (a cellophane wrapped rose is taped to his plaque).

25h

In 2015 The Friends of the Watts Memorial was established, run by volunteers, with the primary aims of protecting, preserving and promoting the memorial and, ultimately, to work towards completing Watts’ original plan. A full list of the plaques can be viewed here.

A squirrel skitters across the wet tile roof, a shortcut from oak to plane. The rain has stopped. The sun emerges briefly, sending sprinkles of light across the paving.  A guide is giving a passionate talk about the Watts Memorial to a tour group, but all look around at the sudden loud shriek of a little girl who’s slipped while chasing her brother around the sundial. A large and burly dad springs over to scoop her up.

This is not a place of morbidity. The Arts and Crafts design and lettering of each plaque instead evoke celebration of life and humanity. Look over the heads of people sitting and chatting or eating their Pret a Mangers and sheltering from today’s light showers. Be drawn along by these nutshells of tragic dramas immortalised in ceramic. Then walk away in thoughtful contemplation of these ordinary people whose heroic final moments have raised them far above the ordinary.


 

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Postman’s Park, St Martin le Grand, London. EC1A 4AS
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 24: The Green Park, Piccadilly

green-park-1(Thursday 21 July 2016)

From the hot and busy east end of the The Green Park, close to the station entrance, I quickly escape the crowds and walk in shade, parallel with Piccadilly, towards the west corner of this 47 acre triangle of (mostly) trees and grass, where stands the impressive RAF Bomber Command Memorial. The lawns become more like grassy meadows, natural and unkempt and overgrown and I’m distracted by the Watering Holes drinking fountain, a slab of blue grey granite, pierced with three large holes, looking something between a Barbara Hepworth sculpture and a slice of Emmental cheese (this was funded by the  Tiffany and Co Foundation, who also sponsored the restoration of the fountains in the Italian Gardens see Sticks In The Smoke 20). And then, beyond, there’s a trio of ancient hawthorn trees, dried and bent and brittle as witches, with purple grey bark, almost dead like firewood, but still a few topmost sprigs of foliage show life’s still clinging on. Beneath is a swathe of downy thistles. I unpack my drawing things in the shade of a spreading plane tree. Here it’s a perfect temperature (after the swelter of the past few days). And there’s a mild breeze which rustles the thistles.

024cThis piece of ground was originally marshy meadowland alongside the River Tyburn. The area occupied by Green Park was called Sandpit Field; there’s a strip of alluvial sand and gravel deposits here (the presence of which caused a collapse during the tunnelling of the Victoria Line in the 1960s). Before the 15th Century it was used as a burial ground for the nearby St. James’s Leper Hospital (which was roughly where St James’s Palace stands today).
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It was laid out as a park by order of Charles II after his return from exile in 1660. He bought Sandpit Field from the Pulteney family (the Earls of Bath), which lay between St James’s Park and Hyde Park, so he could ride through 2 miles of uninterrupted parkland. He had it enclosed by a brick wall and, as was the fashion, built an icehouse, to provide the royal household with all year round cold drinks.
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A lot of passers-by stop to look at my drawing. A couple of young Americans ask to look. They introduce themselves (Eli and Josh) and shake hands. Eli has an under chin gnome beard. He nods at my drawing and says “woah, that’s sick!”. Josh just says “yup!”. I say “thanks”. A family with children, licking dripping lollies, lean over my sketchbook and I worry for my drawing! An unkempt, stubble- chinned man wanders over. He stands and looks and smiles and says “yes, yes” and walks back towards the spread of another plane tree, under which is a rucksack and several plastic bags and, possibly, a sleeping bag rolled up.
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A pony- tailed girl in a red top has being doing a workout on the other side of the path and then, hands on hips, saunters wearily over to the drinking fountain. But some teen boys are trying to kick a football through the holes and are oblivious of anyone else. The girl shrugs her shoulders and walks away.
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250 years ago, the park had a reputation as a notorious hangout for thieves and highwaymen. You’d be very unwise to go for an evening stroll without armed bodyguards. It was also known as a duelling ground; one particularly notorious duel took place there in 1730 between William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath and John Hervey, 1st Earl of Bristol over a political quarrel (both survived, though Hervey only just!). Originally it was known as ‘Upper St. James’s Park’ but renamed ‘The Green Park’ in the 1740s; not just ‘Green Park’ but ‘THE Green Park’. No one’s sure why it was given that name, but a good guess is that, as it was little more than grass, very few trees and no flower beds, it was very. Very. Green.
024aVarious improvements at the beginning of the 18th century made it more of a pleasure garden. It became a popular venue for ballooning attempts (plenty of room for soft landings!), and public firework displays; in 1749 the Temple of Peace, a huge structure, like an over flamboyant wedding cake, built of wood and canvas, erected to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession, was half destroyed when it was hit by a firework! (Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was composed specifically for this celebration, so presumably had a bigger than intended crescendo!). And in 1814 the Temple of Concord, erected to mark 100 years of the Hanoverian Royal family, was also destroyed by fireworks during the Prince Regent’s gala.
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Drawing finished, I walk over to Constitution Hill (Charles would take his “constitutional” walks here, a regular event which is now remembered in the name), and down the dappled path towards Buckingham palace and the gold gleam of the Victoria monument between the trees.
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In the 1820s, celebrated Regency architect,  John Nash  re-landscaped the park alongside alterations he was making to St James ‘s Park. Trees were planted for the first time with the intention of creating an idealised pastoral idyll in the midst of dirty, smoggy, 024bindustrialised London. All buildings within the park (that hadn’t already been destroyed by fireworks!) were eventually removed. The Tyburn was hidden in a tunnel (most of its length now sadly incorporated into London’s sewerage system).
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Children are dabbling their hands in the cooling water, which slips and trickles over the bronze wedge slabs of the Canada Memorial. Designed by the Canadian sculptor Pierre Granche, and unveiled by the Queen in 1994, its inscription reads: “In two world wars one million Canadians came to Britain and joined the fight for freedom. From danger shared, our friendship prospers.
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green-park-2
I return to the busiest corner, where people swarm through the gates from Piccadilly. I stop in the shade of one of the Plane trees which line Queens Walk. This is where once a large reservoir was dug in the 18th century, fed by the River Tyburn, called the Queen’s Basin (named after George II’s Queen Caroline), which supplied fresh water to St James’s Palace and other nearby Royal residences.  I set up my drawing things and explore the view 024dlooking west through a flickering forest of green striped deckchairs, each one a bright slip of light against the cool dark background of bank and shady hedges which border clamouring Piccadilly.
As I draw, thoughts of relativity enter my mind: I’m aware of two different space- time continuums operating in tandem:
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(i) The constantly and erratically moving parade of humanity across my field of vision, on the path from Green Park station.
..and..
(ii) The deck chair loungers, grass sprawlers and sunbathers, settled in the warmth and still as stone.
I find that if I focus on (i), the (ii)’s appear even more rooted and tranquil. But if I give my attention to the (ii)’s for a while, the (i)’s become a blur of activity like frantic ants from a stick poked nest. I think I know which category I’d rather belong to on a day like this.
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The breeze wafts the tree shade coolness but when the sun escapes its cloud cover from time to time, everything suddenly vibrates in its piercing heat.

 


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

The Green Park, Piccadilly, London. W1J 9DZ
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 23: Drury Lane Garden, Covent Garden

drury-lane-gardens(Thursday 14 July 2016)

This little quarter- acre rectangle is wedged between office blocks, just round the corner from Theatre Royal Drury Lane  (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into its 3rd year!). And partly overlooked by the Fortune Theatre (The Woman in Black into its 25th year!). Today this area is a hub for family entertainment. In the early 1800s, however, this was the poorest part of London. Over- populated, rat infested and ramshackle, the entertainment it offered ranged from cock fighting and gambling slums to gin palaces and brothels!

On this muggy afternoon, as I approach the sturdy stone gateposts of the garden, a nursery rhyme bubbles up in my mind:

“Do you know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man?…”
It stays with me, ominously, coming and going in my head for my whole visit, like one of those slightly sinister film soundtracks with children singing discordantly.

I walk up the steps into a small paved courtyard area. It’s dominated by a mass of clematis 023aand honeysuckle and jasmine that have amalgamated into an enormous green caterpillar, supported on a hidden pergola that carries it right across the garden. Today it provides some welcome shade while I sit on the brick edge of the raised bed, take a swig from my water bottle and look around.

The space in front of me is symmetrical: brick walls and pedestals, iron railings. Evergreen trees and shrubs soften the severity of the gothic chapel buildings on either flank. Access ramps curve up to this paved area. Turning around, I can see the very busy children’s playground, enclosed with low walls and gates. A bright yellow spirally climbing frame and slide; a pair of toddlers sit at the top, oblivious of the fidgety queue behind them. Further back, high netting protects a court for ball games. Empty at the moment.

“Do you know the Muffin Man, Who lives on Drury Lane?..”
As with St John’s Gardens last week, this space was also once a burial ground (for St Martin-in-the-Fields) until the mid 19th century. And it too suffered from overcrowding.

023cAll the worse for its location in the midst of such squalid deprivation. It had the vilest reputation and was perfect inspiration for Charles Dickens. In Bleak House, it was the burial site for Nemo, the opium addict. Dickens describes it as: “pestiferous and obscene, with houses looking on on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court, a dark and miserable covered way, gives access to a burial ground where are heaps of dishonoured graves and stones, hemmed- in by filthy houses, on whose walls a thick humidity broke out like a disease”. 

The 1852 Burial Acts sought to put an end to horrific scenes like these. Larger cemeteries were being established away from the most populous parts of the city, such as Brompton Cemetery (see Sticks in the Smoke’ 6) to alleviate the pressure. This ground was closed for burials and grew wild for 20 years until, following the Open Spaces Act of 1877 (by which it became illegal to build on any ground that had been previously used for interments), it was the first burial ground to be made into a public garden in Westminster.

 “Do you know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man? Do you know the Muffin    Man, Who lives on Drury Lane- o?…”
I perch with my back to the old mortuary, from where I can take in a good width of the 023bspace, and start my drawing. Just visible above the clematis foliage is the bell tower of the Presbyterian Crown Court Church of Scotland. And next to that is the multi- spired cluster of mobile phone antennae on the roof of the Fortune Theatre. A white shirted business man strides up the steps in front of me, as though entering on stage. He’s holding a loud and exasperated phone conversation. It goes on as he slumps down onto a shaded bench opposite. The argument continues for a further 5 minutes until, with a heavy groan, he slams his phone down and hunches over with head in hands as if in prayer. He then sighs and turns and slowly lies down on the bench.

There are other players on this stage. A little boy discovers a new game: he gleefully launches his ride- on tractor down the access slope, to crash into his Mum’s legs, while she chats to a friend. He retrieves it and giggles back up the slope and repeats this a couple more times until, wearily, she hauls the wriggling bundle to her hip.

Two women with space dyed hair are feeding noodles to each other with chopsticks.

The harassed business man is now sitting and is tapping at his laptop. A child is waving coloured streamers in the playground behind him, which appear like whooshing blurs of pink and orange around his head.

“Yes I know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man. Yes I know the Muffin Man Who lives on Drury Lane- o!..”
Two hundred years ago, muffins were dense, flattish wheat cakes: a cheap and filling foodstuff in poor areas such as Drury Lane. Muffin men, with their long aprons and trays of muffins on their heads, strode the streets, singing out their wares. It’s thought that this rhyme developed from these street cries. Other theories about it’s origins are more sinister, however. One popular belief is that the Muffin- Man was a child serial murderer, who used the little cakes to lure his victims to their gruesome fate, perhaps in the darkest corners of this graveyard. And this rhyme was about the hunt for this criminal (the last verse perhaps describing the crucial turning point in the long and tedious investigation!). But there’s no evidence to support this story.

Feeling hungry, I pack up my drawing things and leave in search of a bite to eat. Hmm, now what do I fancy?

 


 

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Drury Lane Garden, Covent Garden, London. WC2B 5TB
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 22: St John’s Gardens, Horseferry

St.-John's-Gardens(Thursday 7 July 2016)

I push impatiently through the milling Westminster crowds as midday simmers and the Big Ben bongs follow me down Millbank. I take a right and into Smith Square where the white baroque St. John’s church fills the space and the senses. Charles Dickens once described it as: “some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air”. Following devastation caused by an incendiary bomb in 1941, it lay semi derelict for 20 022eyears, but was restored and reopened in 1969 as St Johns Smith Square, concert hall, now used regularly for BBC music broadcasts. There’s also the Footstool Restaurant in the crypt downstairs where I had an exhibition back in the 80’s. This is the first time I’ve been back here since. I remember fumbling my paintings up onto nails in the brick walls and embarrassingly dropping one with a splintering crash that echoed around the vaulted space!

As there wasn’t room for a churchyard in this modest residential square, a nearby field was bought from the Grosvenor Estate, and was consecrated for burials in 1731. I walk in the sombre footsteps of countless corteges over the centuries, 100 yards down to the busy Horseferry Road and across to St. John’s Gardens which now occupies the site of the old burial ground.

In the 18th century, this was a rapidly growing part of London. The burgeoning population was reflected in heavy demands for burial here. Within 20 years it was bursting at the seams  (a contemporary report states that 5126 graves were dug over a 10 year period!). To ease the congestion, 3 feet of extra topsoil were laid on top and retaining walls built, but by the early 19th century it was getting overcrowded once more. In 1823 an extra strip of land was bought to provide an extension.

The graveyard also needed watchman armed with pistols, to guard against grave robbers (the resurrection men). Body snatching was a serious problem at this time, but was serving a growing demand. Medical schools and private anatomical schools paid well for 022afresh specimens for medical research. The 1832 Anatomy Act required anatomy teachers to be licensed and only permitted donated bodies or those unclaimed to be used for dissection, which more or less put an end to this grisly activity.

I walk through the gates into the garden and there are bodies everywhere;  lying on the grass, sitting on benches eating sandwiches or lounging with backs against ancient worn gravestones which are cemented to the perimeter walls. Couples are strolling the barley twist edged paths.  A pair of shirtsleeved businessmen, drinking coffee and smoking, are leaning against a half buried and wonky monument (it almost looks like they’re pushing it over!). It commemorates Christopher Cass, master mason, who died in 1734. A highly successful stonemason in his time, who worked on the construction of of the four corner towers for St. John’s church.  I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave at the thought of the crumpled Costa cup perched on the pediment of his granite gravestone.

022cThere’s a shady coolness here. Plane tree branches rise and seem to knit together high above, where their foliage forms a high and airy canopy, gently moving and throwing flickers of light onto the paving. People gather and mingle around the fountain pool and sit on the edge, the refreshing trinkle of water behind them. This paved central area with its planted beds has the air of an alfresco meeting place, like a Mediterranean town square. An informal business conference seems to be happening on one side, dapples dancing over dark suits and blue shirts. Just over there is the HQ of Burberry; maybe the air con had broken down and they’d decided to move outside.

I skirt around the spray of a lawn sprinkler watering a triangular bed planted out with cineraria and geranium.  The long yellow hose snakes and twists across the lawns. I walk further and sit on the ground behind another flowerbed and start a drawing looking across towards one of the garden’s two tall and slender gingko trees.

022dBy the 1850s, this ground was closed for burials. It became neglected, overgrown and a haunt of villainous gangs. In the 1880’s a committee of residents raised money for it to be tidied up and, with the support of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and a bit of help from the Duke of Westminster, had it laid out as a public garden, which was opened on 23 May 1885. Not much has changed to the garden’s layout since then, apart from the replacement of the original central shelter with the fountain and pool.

The garden is closely overlooked on its east side by the ten storey 1930s brick cliff face of Westminster Green, originally Westminster Hospital. Opposite is St John’s buildings, equally tall, which were built as Queen Mary Nurses’ Home and Training School. Since the hospital’s relocation to Fulham in the early 90s, both buildings are now mostly upmarket apartments, with these 1½ acres serving as their back garden.  At the base of Westminster Green, openings in the garden wall are filled with a series of (‘30s inspired) abstract metalwork grills by renowned jeweller, Wendy Ramshaw, commissioned in 2005. Looking up, I see a large 4th floor 022bwindow is wide open, a woman puffs a blue cloud of cigarette smoke; a little dog cradled under her arm.

As I draw, the shh – shh of the sprinkler is a steady rhythm. A jackdaw scritches around amongst leaf litter under the shrubs behind me. A flock of pigeons take off as a body and I feel the breeze from their wings. A bumble bee flops down onto my paper and skitters about in the wet paint. I help it onto the grass but it makes a bee line for my sketchbook again. I gently scoop it over to the nearby flowerbed.

A gardener, phone clamped to her ear, turns off the sprinkler one- handedly and pulls it over the lawns towards the bed just in front of me. I decide its time to finish quickly or face another soaking like I had at Kensington Gardens two weeks ago!

 


 

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

St. John’s Gardens, Horseferry Road, Westminster, London. SW1P 4SA
Google earth view here
Image of St Johns Smith Square from London Churches in Photographs